Franck Vigroux - Totem

A Closer Listen

In order to appreciate the composer, one must look past the superlative.  The press release calls Franck Vigroux “France’s most singular contemporary composer,” a title that might also go to Eliane Radigue, Pierre Boulez, or a number of other contenders.  Vigroux is a powerful composer who creates immersive and often pummeling works of art; this should be enough.

Totem is the latest offering, waiting only a second or two before exploding like a race car crashing into a bank of speakers at a heavy metal show.  This isn’t gentle music, although it is intricate.  Multiple layers are embedded in these designs, combining to form clouds of oppression.  As Totem races across years of French history, one can hear the seeds of revolution, the battlefield cannons, the police sirens: a stone skipped across a sea of violent encounters.  The drums add a tempering effect; without them, the sound spirals out of control.  Lead single “Capaupire” is a perfect example, alternating between eruption and flow.  A likely reference is Samuel Beckett’s Cap au pire (Worstword Ho), a satirical work that reflects the human tendency to descend.  And this album does descend, heading straight down to the abyss.

“Chronostasis” refers to a temporal illusion in which a watched clock seems to stop.  By playing with expectation, Vigroux extends his initial impressions, leaving aural echoes in his wake.  After these echoes one might perceive, if only for a moment, a still, small voice, found in the opening of “Cris,” a crackling fire balanced by a rising series of tones.  Imagine an entire bank of tea kettles going off one by one, producing accidental harmonies.  Once again the absence of drums allows for disorientation, the closing seconds a chordal shock.  When the rhythms are restored, the listener begins to wonder, “how much time was lost when I was unable to count?”

When Vigroux does use drums, his music turns industrial in nature ~ even, dare we say it, danceable.  “Baron” would fill the floors in some underground clubs, its relentless bassline a nocturnal draw.  But the album is neither a club disc nor a drone disc; alternating between strengths, Vigroux concentrates more on creating claustrophobic tension, most apparent in the nine-minute “Elephant.”  It’s tempting to talk about “the elephant in the room,” but the track probably refers to the Elephant of the Bastille, a short-lived project sparked by Napoléon, playfully echoed in the giant mechanical elephant of Nantes.  The density of the track rises along with its volume, producing the impression of a monolith.

Strange then that Vigroux chooses “Télévision” as one of his monuments, but fitting.  Television pales in contrast to other symbols (most notably the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris), but Vigroux seems to suggest that this maudlin symbol has claimed an emotional spot once reserved for architecture.  This indictment serves as a clarion call.  As the Yellow Vest protests hit the half-year mark, Totem reminds listeners of the power of image: for better or worse, to inspire or to inflame.  (Richard Allen)

Thu May 23 00:01:22 GMT 2019

The Quietus

With a title like Totem and its evocation of Native American traditions and the stereotypical association that evokes of nature and animals one could be forgiven for assuming French producer-composer Franck Vigroux has gone down a folk road. Instead his collision of musique concrète and electronica reasserts folk’s relationship to both the avant-garde and dance music, albeit in brutalist and abrasive fashion. This isn’t music for a campfire sing-song or to be played in a pub at midsummer but its rugged vigour nonetheless stretches away from modern production tools into something more primeval.

Totem features some of the most uncompromising and colossal electronic music you will hear this year. In a manner not a million miles away from the later work of the great Scott Walker, Vigroux builds up and juxtaposes hefty blocks of sound, often alternating between moments of calm and seething noise, as on ‘Capaupire’ on which a metronomic, minimal backbeat and ambient textures are sporadically interrupted by walls of abrasive white noise. On ‘Tropiques Tropiques’ these slabs of noise come close to echoing the caustic doom metal of a SUNN O))) or a Wolves in the Throne Room, another North American pagan leitmotiv to chime with the album’s title even as it slyly confounds any expectations of the tropics.

For all the sturm und drang, however, Totem is a subtle and intricate album that owes just as much to Wolfgang Voigt as it does Throbbing Gristle or Merzbow. Tracks like ‘Rhinocéros’, ‘Frontières’ and ‘Baron’ are low-key electronic explorations, hypnotic beats and looped synth patterns building quietly, with the expected explosions of noise kept at bay. The joy is in delving into the sonic depths Vigroux plunders to parse out hidden melodies and meanings. ‘Cris’ and ‘Chronostasis grand finale’ meanwhile are redolent of Ben Frost’s epic constructions but with the Australian’s bombast stripped away to reveal a moody, haunted core. ‘Elephant’ takes this mood to notable heights as synth lines and disembodied voices swim in and out of focus like ghosts pleading to be noticed before a wave of drone swallows them whole like a tide.

On Totem, Franck Vigroux’s take on folk traditions sees him heave up almighty boulders of sound to unearth the hidden ghosts underneath. Quite how they relate to a notion of totems remains somewhat out of reach, as do the animals evoked in certain track titles. Is this a form of unpleasant cultural appropriation or a case of sardonic humour? Such questions can make it a frustrating experience but on the other hand Totem certainly towers like its namesakes tend to and between this scale and the mysteries it contains, it’s an album that lingers in the memory even after the last notes have faded away.

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Sun Jun 09 11:38:16 GMT 2019